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Compass and Stars
By MARTIN L. SMITH
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2007 Martin L. Smith
All rights reserved.
I am running out of shelf space for books in my little apartment and as I puzzled recently about which to keep I went into a reverie about the tiny collection of books we had at a home when I was a child. My parents were avid users of the public library, but owned only a couple of dozen books. I devoured them all from cover to cover. A self-help manual from the 1940s called Relief from Nervous Tension particularly fascinated me, since I felt tense and nervous a lot of the time. So at the age of ten I pored over it, laboring to understand the concept of neurosis and puzzling over the scenarios the author presented. One particular story made a deep impression. A patient who complained of chronic allergies entered his therapist's office only to be confronted by a huge bouquet of flowers on the desk. Immediately starting to wheeze and choke, the patient railed at the therapist for recklessly exposing him to such an irritant. Without a word, the therapist started to tear the flowers up. They were artificial paper flowers and entirely harmless.
Ever since, I have been fascinated by the power of the identities we create for ourselves. Who we think we are can dictate how the very cells of our bodies are going to react to the environment. The choking patient's body was obediently acting out his identity in the "allergic" reaction to what he assumed were real flowers, though in fact they were made of paper. Researchers have discovered that in patients suffering from multiple personality disorder, one of the personalities can be allergic to something while the other "self" isn't at all. One personality can be short-sighted and the other long-sighted, and the patient needs glasses with completely different prescriptions as she shifts from one identity to another.
Investigation into the ways our ideas get embedded into the very cellular structure of our bodies should be of paramount interest to thoughtful Christians. Our commitment to the mystery of Incarnation should make us especially alert to every source of insight about the way our beliefs affect us physically. All sorts of avenues should be explored more openly in our Christian practice as we build a richer understanding of what healing is.
Meditation and prayer are powerful ways of letting go of old identities and exploring new ones in Christ, and our bodies can register this change in a hundred ways, from the expression in our eyes to the ways we let go of stress. And transformation occurs through a flow in the other direction, too. We can allow our bodies to experience change first, and then a new sense of self can follow.
For example, there are many ways of exposing ourselves to deep healing of heart, mind, and soul through our bodies, through touch and movement. So, for example, it is a fact that our bodies act as the long-term "storage" for painful memories. This is not some New Age claptrap, but ageless human knowledge whose foundation is only now being investigated by science. Skilled body work—my experience has been with the technique called Rolfing—can release the pain and emotion embedded in particular areas of my body, freeing me to mature. Yoga and other forms of movement can be the royal road to a profound shift in the way we know and identify ourselves. I have been practicing mudras for some years, praying with a range of ancient gestures and postures for the arms and hands. I can't explain how these strange and beautiful gestures help shift my energies from petty obsessions, self-doubt, and negativity into a state of openness to God's presence in the present moment. I just know they do, and that I am benefiting from millennia of experimentation.
And what about the healing power of sacramental ritual? Our bodies can often offer us ways to grow into radically new identities of faith when our minds seem stuck in skepticism. I remember hearing of a Marxist intellectual in Russia who wanted to believe but could not overcome his agnosticism. He consulted a wise priest who strangely showed little interest in his visitor's intellectual difficulties with Christianity. The priest told him to go home and get into the habit of making the sign of the cross and bowing to the ground a hundred times a day in the privacy of his own room, then come back to see him when he felt like it. The man returned a month later and asked for baptism. First he practiced believing with his body, then his mind could catch up. There are thousands of men and women who find it hard to believe intellectually yet regularly take part in services in hospitable churches. Many are simply learning to believe with their bodies first. Through the rituals of worship the mental knots of their agnosticism are gradually being worked loose, and their hearts are being freed like a compass needle to align with the attraction of God.
I will always remember a moment years ago, turning a corner in a stairwell of the Tate Gallery in London and confronting a painting by Sir Stanley Spencer called Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard. This huge canvas depicts with glorious earthiness and apparent naiveté the opening of the graves in the painter's local churchyard on the last day. The different generations buried there over the centuries are struggling up as if from long sleep and beginning to take stock of one another. In the middle there is a young man just emerging, looking to one side with a serene and serious expression—the artist's self-portrait. Back then, in the mid-sixties, the painting was regarded as dated and unfashionable and relegated to this relatively obscure place in a stairwell. There I stayed rooted on the stairs for over an hour, a young and troubled adolescent, anxious and struggling with depression I tried to keep secret, being moved to the very core of my being by the force of the resurrection gospel.
One of the best ways we can learn spiritually from one another is to share personal stories of the spiritual impact works of art have on us—the buildings, the music, the paintings, the sculptures in whose presence we have experienced epiphany, even conversion. In our western Protestant world, a culture dominated by thought and words, conversion experiences are often couched as events triggered by speech: a preacher or perhaps an inner voice speaks to us and things change inside us. But our shared religious experience can tell us that symbols contain within themselves inexhaustible reserves of converting power, and we can be surprised by joy—and terror—and become suddenly sensitized to the grace of God when we open ourselves to them. Anglicans are sometimes mocked for their interest in the aesthetic, and we should be able to laugh at ourselves for what is often an exaggerated interest in good taste. And yet that laughter shouldn't shake our respect for something we know and love: the power of sacramental symbol and image to embody and communicate life-changing grace.
When we share our stories of religious experience, one of the most powerful themes that comes through is the uncanny way in which our religious experiences are timely. By coincidence—only it seems it never is mere coincidence—just when we need something so deeply, we turn a corner and encounter something that "speaks to our condition," as Quaker spirituality puts it. Somehow, when we are ready and not before, we have an encounter: the cathedral we happened to enter while traveling because we had an hour to kill before catching the train, the song that happened to be on the radio when we switched it on at random, the painting in the art gallery we would have missed if we hadn't obeyed the impulse to turn aside, the sculpture in the garden we wouldn't have had time to contemplate if our friend hadn't been delayed, the poem that stood out from the page when we were merely looking at books at random in the store to while away a moment.
Spirituality has a lot to do with gaining a sense that we have our own unique story about how God's grace has worked in our lives. These moments when God uses symbols and images to touch us can play as important a role as those grace- filled encounters with living people, the human angels who have come to us just at the right moment throughout our lives. And these grace-filled encounters have a double importance. They are not only milestones on the journey of conversion. They continue to yield new meanings as time goes on. Sometimes epiphany events are "a whisper which memory will warehouse as a shout." The original events can be fleeting, but over time our later experience brings them out in their fullness, just as the chemical bath in the darkroom develops the dim negative into a vivid picture.
The memory of my encounter with Spencer's masterpiece Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard is one I can visit again and again because the force of this strange and eccentric work of art never diminishes. When I first saw it, it didn't speak to me about the afterlife, but about this life, the life that lay ahead of me. I was touched with a sense of hope about my own creativity. And I wasn't surprised to learn that Spencer had started the painting immediately after his first sexual experience, because even at first sight, the picture challenged my ambivalence about sexuality and my uneasy relationship with my own body. Over the years, the painting has continued to bring blessings to me, and now in middle age, it keeps me company as I meditate on the future that awaits us in God beyond death. That future will not be the salvaging of a part of me, the soul, but the embrace of the whole of me, and in some way I will be even more fully an embodied person in eternity than I am now.
Jesus is a Jew
I am often asked how the three years I worked on the staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have changed me as a priest. I can only answer, "In more ways than I yet realize." I am certainly more painfully aware than ever of the terrible consequences of the church's historic failure to fully embrace the Jewishness of Jesus. So when New Year's Day came round, I found myself regretting that the first of January is no longer celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision, as it was in the original Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer. The change to calling it the Feast of the Holy Name must have seemed to make a great deal of sense in the 1970s when liturgical renewal was in full swing, and now only senior churchgoers remember the old commemoration. The very idea of holding up the fact of Jesus' circumcision has been relegated to a kind of religious attic where the church stores the obsolete.
Circumcision is that solemn act which marks every Jewish male with an indelible sign of his membership in the covenant people of God, and Luke faithfully records that Jesus himself was circumcised eight days after he was born. We know nothing about Jesus' personal appearance, but we can be certain about this physical sign of his Jewish identity. The old commemoration on New Year's Day was a reminder of that identity, and however sound the reasoning may have seemed for dropping it, the loss reminds us of a tragic dimension in Christian history.
"Tragic" seems overstated, but then working at the Holocaust Museum has forced me to stare day after day at those horrific events for which the groundwork was laid by the church's historic minimizing—or worse, virtual denial—of Jesus' Jewishness. Generation after generation was brought up to believe that Jesus was completely separated from the Jewish people, that Judaism was an alien culture whose survival was an obstinate hold-out against the new revelation of Christianity. The Holocaust could not have happened if the church had not been propagating for centuries an atrociously distorted theology that severed the connection between Jesus and his own people.
I used to imagine I was completely innocent of this attitude. After all, even as a boy, I could see through the bias in the depictions of Jesus as a blond Anglo-Saxon type in the stained glass windows. I made an intense study of the "historical Jesus" with scholars who rigorously emphasized Jesus as a prophet of his own people to his own people. My preaching was always grounded in the knowledge that Jesus was a Jew. But now I keep on discovering new levels of denial within myself. Not long ago the Presbyterian theologian Christopher Leighton, addressing a gathering at the Museum, jolted me by asserting that it is not enough for Christians to say that Jesus was a Jew; we have to say, Jesus is a Jew.
Leighton's words stung me into awareness. I realized that at some level I had been assuming that Jesus' identification with his own people in the covenant had somehow evaporated on the cross and in the grave. It was as though, in being raised from the dead, Jesus shed his Jewishness like a chrysalis and became a Universal Being and Presence. Paul's radical message that membership in God's community was open to all—"There is neither Jew or Greek ... for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28)—has had the unfortunate effect of seeming to make Jesus' inherent Jewishness disappear. I had never said to myself, "Jesus is a Jew"—let alone said in my prayers, "Jesus, you are a Jew"
Those who had the uncanny privilege of seeing the risen Christ described a body still bearing the wounds of crucifixion: "He showed them his hands and his side" (John 20:20). Just as surely Christ's body bore—we must say bears—the marks of the first wound that sealed him irrevocably with the sign of the covenant. And so perhaps there is a loss that can still be tragic, if we forget Jesus' circumcision.
Many are highly reluctant to meditate in this way. The prudish will recoil from alluding to Jesus' genitals; they need to keep anything sexual out of spirituality. Some feminists may have problems with such an overt reminder of Jesus' maleness; it may seem like a regression to an old spirituality that implied that males reflected God's image more than females. And for many, the effort even to imagine a risen Christ as anything other than a metaphor for a vague "spiritual presence" is too much. For them the Word might indeed have become flesh, but that only lasted for the thirty-three years or so of Jesus' earthly life.
These are neutering tendencies in our religion, and they have a disturbing relationship with the anti-Semitic biases that have disfigured Christianity. They were much on my mind at times when I walked through the Holocaust Museum on my own, praying silently to the Christ who, even as the Risen One, suffers until the end of time in and with all the suffering. Passing by these countless photographs of those who perished in the Holocaust—a mere fraction of the six million—I at least began to grasp that Christ is never more united with humanity than in his solidarity with his own Jewish sisters and brothers, those who are and always will be his own kin, those who have borne such unbearable things—many of them at the hands of those who claimed to be Christ's own.
Even After Death
I have been praying for a friend who was diagnosed just a few weeks ago with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Today I received news of his death and I find myself so full of gratitude that I belong to a church that encourages us to pray for the dead. What an amazing blessing it is to know that although we really have to work to let loved ones go when they die, we can still maintain an intimate connection with them through prayer. Through and in Christ, we can still go on expressing our love for the one we have temporarily lost. In the body of Christ, we are still united and love can go on flowing back and forth, carried along on the currents of the Holy Spirit.
Anglicans have not always enjoyed this freedom to pray for the dead. During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the practice was stripped from the worship and practice of the Church of England. This was partly a reaction against the superstitious abuses associated with the medieval doctrine of purgatory. Purgatory was conceived as a place of banishment to which the dead were supposedly sentenced in order to receive any outstanding punishment for their sins—a sentence that intercessions for the dead, Masses offered on their behalf, and indulgences applied to their account were thought to reduce. And partly it was under the influence of rigid notions of predestination, the theory that God had decreed in advance our fate in the life to come, a fate that no amount of prayers could possibly influence.
Excerpted from Compass and Stars by MARTIN L. SMITH. Copyright © 2007 Martin L. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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